San Francisco 49ers Will Wake Up Forever Changed by Nightmare Offseason

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterAugust 7, 2015

Referee watches an NFL football game in San Francisco, Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

San Francisco 49ers fans are trapped in their worst nightmare.

With troubled pass-rusher Aldon Smith's arrest and subsequent release from the team for a hit-and-run accident, driving under the influence and vandalism, according to the Santa Clara Police Department's official Twitter feed, this offseason bloodbath has reduced the scariest front seven in the NFL to a skeleton crew.

General manager Trent Baalke's plot to overthrow former head coach Jim Harbaugh as top decision-maker has led to an unintentional reign of terror. The list of contributors, starters, Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers whose heads have rolled is stunningly long, and those losses seemingly leave little to be excited about in Levi's Stadium.

Even the stadium itself is betraying Baalke. A field that was supposed to be the crown jewel of Bay Area sports can't even handle light workouts, per Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News. Ten thousand season-ticket holders looked on in dismay during one of the team's summer practices as the field Santa Clara borrowed $850 million to construct disintegrated under the 49ers' cleats.

Did Harbaugh hex the team on his way out the door? Did Baalke sell his soul to the Football Devil in return for unfettered power, and now he's paying the price?  Whatever malignant force has beset San Francisco, all that's left is for the fans, ownership, executives, staff and players to hope they'll wake up from this nightmare when the team finally plays its first game.

But what happens when the 49ers really do line up and kick off? Even if the act of playing competitive football exorcises whatever demons have haunted them all offseason, what kind of team will their fans be left rooting for?

The answer, for better or worse: Trent Baalke's team.

Cam Inman @CamInman

Aldon Smith's latest DUI arrest comes couple days after this picture with his biggest supporter, GM Trent Baalke http://t.co/SSu33CwEwl

Smith is a perfect example of Baalke's hubris. Despite repeated signs that Smith was struggling to make sane, stable decisions away from the field, Baalke restructured Smith's deal back in March—with the understanding, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported, that an extension was forthcoming.

"We're going to work hard to make sure that he remains here," Baalke told the Associated Press on Tuesday, via Fox Sports. "…Really pleased with the way he's handled things, the way he's working both personally and professionally. I think he's doing an outstanding job."

Just three days later, San Francisco announced it released Smith.

Now that Smith's made a fool out of himself (and Baalke) yet again, the pressure on Baalke's team to perform ratchets even higher. Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, who was critical of the 49ers' organization late last season, went on Twitter to explain why the team's problems are the result of their own poor choices:

Tim Kawakami @timkawakami

Back when I spoke to 49ers execs, they truly believed they were "saving" Aldon Smith. I disagreed then. I disagree now.

Tim Kawakami @timkawakami

You don't "save" a player by giving him millions and being his best pal. You're just rationalizing your need for his abilities.

San Francisco's need for his abilities this season, after the departures of Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Dan Skuta, was extreme. Now, as Rotoworld's Evan Silva pointed out, the 49ers' linebacking corps will in one offseason go from Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Chris Borland and Ahmad Brooks to a questionably healthy NaVorro Bowman, Mike Wilhoite, Brooks and Aaron Lynch.

Third-year pass-rusher Corey Lemonier, one of Baalke's previously lauded redshirt draft picks, will have to make a Smith-like impact for the 49ers defense to be anything like it was under Harbaugh—and new head coach Jim Tomsula, Harbaugh's defensive line coach, has a long way to go to prove he's even a fraction of the coach Harbaugh was.

Major 49ers Offseason Losses
Chris BorlandILBRetirement
Perrish CoxCBFree Agency
Chris CulliverCBFree Agency
Michael CrabtreeWRFree Agency
Anthony DavisOTRetirement
Vic FangioDCFiring
Frank GoreRBFree Agency
Jim HarbaughHCFiring
Mike IupatiOGFree Agency
Stevie JohnsonWRFree Agency
Greg RomanOCAccepted Other Job
Dan SkutaOLBFree Agency
Aldon SmithOLBRelease
Justin SmithDERetirement
Patrick WillisILBRetirement
Various News Reports

This is the new reality Niners fans must wake up to: The Harbaugh Era is well and truly dead. 49ers fans must hope Smith's arrest puts the final nail in that coffin. But if you take a deep breath, bury the glorious recent past and look toward the future, there are reasons to be hopeful.

The last time a championship-caliber defense underwent an apparent offseason meltdown, it was the Baltimore Ravens' mass exodus after beating the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. And as it turned out, the loss of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe and others hardly set the franchise back at all. With a good quarterback and some key pieces to rebuild around, just two seasons later they're again considered one of the most talented teams in the league.

Yes, there are questions surrounding the health and/or productivity of Bowman, first-round pick Arik Armstead, returning nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and poached defensive end Darnell Dockett. But together with Brooks, that's still a lot more talent along the front seven than most teams are blessed with.

On offense, Colin Kaepernick has made progress in fits and starts, but he's still as talented as any quarterback in the NFL. And 49ers fans know firsthand how dangerous new wideout Torrey Smith is when paired with Anquan Boldin.

There are questions on the offensive line, yes, but Joe Staley and Alex Boone are still providing toughness and stability as young center Marcus Martin gets another chance to win the starting job, as he was supposed to last season before getting hurt.

All told, San Francisco has a lot of potential and a forward-thinking players' coach at the helm.

Are the 49ers going to pound teams into submission with Frank Gore and Justin Smith? No, this is a younger squad with fresh faces trying to find a new identity. Maybe the Harbaugh squad's window slammed shut a year or two early, but better to have the groundwork for the future laid now than go into a season with a bunch of highly paid stars in their mid-30s and have the bottom drop out.

By the end of this season, the 49ers will have won a fair number of games and beaten some quality teams. They won't win the same way the old Niners did, but fans will feel more optimistic this December than they did last December, and that's progress. As soon as the Bay Area sun shines over the 49ers playing real football, their collective nightmare should end.

Sadly, their regular season opens on Monday Night Football.